Out in the Open

How to write the perfect eulogy

Keep it short, contain your emotions, and don’t make it all about you.

Keep it short, contain your emotions, and don’t make it all about you

Wendy Dennis is a journalist and author who ghostwrites speeches for her clients’ special occasions. (Blaise Misiek)

Wendy Dennis gets raised eyebrows when she tells people that she writes eulogies for total strangers.

"And I get that," she says. Prospective clients worry that her words might sound hollow or insincere. "And I think they have to get over that hump before they reach out to me."

Dennis is a journalist and author who also runs a ghostwriting service. She helps people prepare speeches for funerals, weddings, graduations and other special occasions.

"Really, I see my job as just helping them say the things they want to say but don't know how," she says.

She starts by interviewing the person giving the speech. She looks for anecdotes that can be fleshed out into entertaining stories.

She's also seen a few of the common pitfalls, and has some advice.

The big one: Don't write a press release. While a funeral is no place to air petty grievances, she says it's important to be honest about who the person was.

"I've seen this at funerals, where the person they're describing is so far from the reality that most people knew about that person, I've had people look around down the row and say, 'Are we at the right funeral?'" says Dennis.

The perfect eulogy length? Three to five minutes, "particularly if other people are speaking."

Is crying okay? "You should really make an effort to contain your emotions," she says, "and you can do that by rehearsing." Otherwise, you'll distract from the message.

Another tip: Take pauses. As a listener, "you should be allowed to have the moments of emotion. You should be allowed to have the laughs."

Dennis has written dozens of eulogies now. And, inevitably, she sometimes wonders what others will write about her.

"I think it's natural," she says. "When you go to a funeral, particularly when you get to be a certain age, you start thinking not just about what is going to be said about you, but who's going to show."

"I want somebody to tell the truth about me. The good and the bad," she says.

"Maybe not the ugly."

This story originally aired on February 18, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Last Words".


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